HC Deb 01 July 1993 vol 227 cc1120-32

4.1 pm

The Secretary of State for Education (Mr. John Patten)

I would like to make a statement about the reform of student unions.

As the House knows, we have sharply expanded the number of students in higher education and established a new framework for the sector. We have also established a new further education sector, with a record increase in student numbers. We recently issued our draft charters for further and higher education for consultation. The charters will promote informed choice and a high standard of service in further and higher education. Our student union reforms will similarly reinforce choice.

The Government have already abolished the closed shop in the trade union sector. Our reforms will apply the voluntary principle to student unions throughout Great Britain. We will give students the power to choose for themselves what collective involvement they want. I believe that the whole House will support me in emphasising the voluntary principle for students. Students should have the right to opt in, to decide for themselves.

At the same time, we believe that the taxpayer should not be expected to support, through campus unions, activities which are unaccountable, whether financially or democratically, or which represent essentially political activities on campus. We must protect individual students and their clubs and associations from victimisation.

I therefore propose to bring forward legislation to implement a three-part reform of student unions. First, I plan to limit the purposes for which universities and colleges can pass money received from public sources to their campus unions. All students will retain access, if they wish, to a core of essential campus services, and universities and colleges will be able to support them through their campus unions with public funds if they wish, although they may provide those services directly themselves and not through campus unions. All other campus union activities will be placed on an opt-in, voluntary subscription basis.

Secondly, my general policy will be that the approach which I have outlined will avoid public funds being used for affiliations to organisations such as the National Union of Students or other campaigning organisations. If campus unions wish to affiliate to any such organisations, the fees should be paid from private sources.

Thirdly, student unions should be more accountable and fully representative. We shall therefore provide for institutions to develop and implement codes of practice governing the conduct and behaviour of their campus unions.

In preparing the proposals we have taken careful account of universities' and colleges' concerns about essential student services, and. we shall continue to do so. I am minded to identify welfare, catering, sport, and representation of student interests within the institution as core services for which student unions may receive public funding. I intend to ensure that the core services are accessible to all students.

For other activities, it will be up to students to decide what collective involvement they want. Our intention is not to impede students' activities, but to limit the purposes for which student unions can spend public money.

Through the institutions' codes of practice, I aim to ensure that campus unions follow democratic practices, and to prevent political bias in their allocation of resources. If individual students, or individual student societies, consider that they are being discriminated against or unfairly treated by their campus union, they should be able to seek redress. The codes of practice will therefore provide for a person outside the institution to whom individual students and societies can appeal.

For both core services and codes of practice, my intention is that universities' and colleges' decisions should be based on prior consultations with their students, and fully publicised thereafter, in line with charter principles.

Universities and colleges will be able to retain any savings from reductions in their support for campus unions and will be able to redeploy them for the benefit of students, whether collectively or as individuals. The reforms will not in any way affect the level of public funding available for students.

The new powers that I have described will be exercisable in parallel by my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland proposes to consult on similar reforms. In this way we shall be able to allow appropriate variations to suit local circumstances.

The proposals follow an extended period of consultation with students, universities and colleges. We shall begin further discussions shortly with the universities and colleges, and with student representatives. I am issuing today two consultation notes, for response by 1 October, on the detailed implementation of our policy for the core services and the coverage of codes of practice. I shall be looking to all parties to implement the reforms constructively. Those consultation papers, and a factual note setting out the proposals, are being placed in the Vote Office today.

The Government recognise that students are vital to the future well-being of this country. They should be encouraged to exercise their own choices and their own judgments. The reforms that I have outlined today will ensure that they can do so. On that basis, I hope that the proposals will be widely welcomed by the House.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

Well, well, is that not typical of the Government? They prattle on for two to three years about a change of policy. The Secretary of State made a Tory party conference rant last October. Now, on 1 July, the Government make a statement to the House which will affect 1 million students in higher education and 2.5 million students in further education, and ask for comment by 1 October. It is contemptible. Every time the Government seek to consult on education matters, they do so during the summer. It is just not good enough. All student unions would benefit from a clarification of their legal status—there can be no argument about that—and operational procedures, but smashing up the wide range of services that they provide is not the way to go about it.

The Government's survey showed that less than 2 per cent. of total student union incomes were spent on political activities and that 70 per cent. of student unions spent less than 0.5 per cent. of their income on such activities. The Secretary of State is now seeking to waste parliamentary and ministerial time on the matter. How many university vice-chancellors and college principals have complained to the Government about the operation of student unions? The Department's own report made it clear and confirmed in 1989 that many student unions are charitable bodies. Why cannot we make sure that all student unions are charitable bodies and subject to charitable law? What is wrong with the NUS proposal for a register of student unions, to operate in the same way as the certification officer for trade unions?

At a time of financial restraint coupled with expansion, what is being done to ensure that student unions in smaller higher education colleges and in the further education sector are able to provide services of equal value to those of student unions in larger colleges? Why have not the Government followed the Opposition's request for the National Audit Office to prepare a report on the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which student unions use public funds? The NAO is Parliament's watchdog for the spending of public money, so why have we not used our own watchdog to produce a report, to allow the Public Accounts Committee to investigate, inquire and report back to the House?

If student unions can propose a conscience clause for individuals opting out, why is that not good enough for the Government? A student union clause for opting out of a local student union is not good enough for Ministers. If student unions can propose secret ballots under independent scrutiny by the Electoral Reform Society, why is this not acceptable to the Government? For many years, the NUS has had no individual members, and is converting itself to charitable status.

Does the Secretary of State's statement and proposals protect the ability of the NUS to provide, for example, bulk purchasing arrangements for the stocking of student union shops so that they can avoid being ripped off by spiv suppliers and can provide economy and value for money for students?

The NUS has asked for ballots on affiliation every three years. Not every student union is affiliated to the NUS. What is wrong with ballots on affiliation every three years? If the NUS is so unrepresentative, why do Ministers bother to consult it? Why do they bother to consult a body that they claim is so unrepresentative?

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)


Mr. Rooker

We have heard now from a former Minister at the Department for Education that clearly he does not want to go even that far.

From my experience as a governor of a college of further education for more than 20 years before I became a Member of the House, I know that student unions are the most appropriate and effective means by which student views can be taken into account. The Secretary of State's short statement allows for no effective consultation in July, August and September, and that is unacceptable. I want answers this afternoon to my questions to the Government so that there can be meaningful consultation during a period when, as with the House, colleges and universities will, in the main, be in recess.

Some student unions have campaigned, for example, for wider access for students—only to be told by admission tutors that such campaigns mean unwarranted social engineering. Does that count as political campaigning by students? We must know the margins of the areas into which the Government are seeking to corral student unions.

The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals admits that in terms of cost-effectiveness alone but also efficiency, welfare, information, advice and counselling, sports, and support for academic, religious, cultural, artistic and—yes—political and religious groups is best conducted by students unions. If that committee does not see a problem and is not complaining to the Government, calling in the police or cutting off funds, why are the Government taking that upon themselves?

Sheffield student union organises help for 26 local campaigns, such as Crisis at Christmas. Is it political to provide breakfast in the cathedral? It may be nasty party politics to Tory Ministers, but it is what Jesus Christ would have done. That activity is funded by the surplus from the student union's trading activities—activities that are buttressed and supported by about 15 per cent. of its total funds being public funds. It spends the rest of those funds on programmes for women's safety and facilities for international students. Will they be cut by the Government's proposals?

Will student unions that run late-night minibus services and that provide safe transport for women's groups be restricted? The student union in my constituency runs unicare, in co-operation with the police. It is funded by the Home Office and deals with crime and safety. Will universities be prevented from running operations such as that?

Having looked at the cost-effectiveness and the crumbling state of our education funding, Manchester university students union has concluded that it wishes to campaign not for a loan system, but for a graduate tax. Is that political? Will it be prevented from putting its case for a decent funding system for higher education? Will it be corralled by this?

Many of the examples that Conservative Back Benchers will use when I sit down—for convenience I have distributed the brief from which they come to my hon. Friends—relate to activities as far back as 1989. Many others relate to activities around late 1991 and early 1992 when my party, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party were campaigning to encourage students to get on the correct electoral register and to ensure that they were registered for the correct proxy and postal votes. Yes, we did target students, as did the Tory party; we make no apology for that. The Government forced students to deregister because of the poll tax, so it was crucial to ensure that they did not lose the right to vote.

I recently visited a university that has been successful. It had provided a safe haven for students and students had been taking food to Bosnia. The vice president, who had been so active in the student union, had just accepted a commission in the Army and the president had just been positively vetted for a job at GCHQ—the Government communications headquarters. That is an example of the student unions in the 1990s. They are professional, employ professional staff and provide professional services.

Why on earth are Ministers seeking to waste parliamentary and ministerial time with this contemptible system of consultation, which cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be meaningful? Student unions are spending their time trying to keep students alive and well fed because of the stress that they are under. It is an absolute disgrace that this statement has been made today.

Mr. Patten

What the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) has said puts the capital R into the word "rant". We have probably seen a parliamentary record since the response to the statement was longer than the statement itself. It is one for the "Guinness Book of Records".

The hon. Member for Perry Barr has misinterpreted entirely the fundamental principles underlying the reforms—the freedom of association and the freedom of choice for individuals. It is the sort of thing to which the European convention on human rights correctly refers. It is totally wrong, as a matter of high principle, for people to be forced to join an organisation that they do not wish to join and, through that membership, to be forced to accede to campaigns of which they do not approve.

The statement was short and the consultation period is long. We have a three-month period for consultation, until 1 October, and many of the hon. Gentleman's questions are referred to and answered in the two consultation papers that are in the Vote Office this afternoon.

I welcome one thing—only one thing—that the hon. Gentleman said, and that is his welcome for the fact that we need better codes of practice and greater accountability within our student unions. The hon. Gentleman represents part of a university city, as I do, and we all know that periods of student unrest, demonstrations and troubles on campuses come and go rather like the cycle of spots on the surface of the sun. We must be prepared at any stage for the problems that can arise if there is inadequate supervision of what goes on in student unions.

The hon. Gentleman referred to proposals for opting out, put forward by the NUS and others. Opting out, with a conscience clause, denies those students access to services which should be theirs, as of right, on campus.

The Government's proposals this afternoon protect a core set of services to which all students have access, whether those services are provided through a campus union or directly by the universities themselves. There may be market testing. That is something that we may wish to encourage. Opting out denies access. There is a clear division between what people should reasonably expect institutions to provide and what they should reasonably expect to pay for out of their own pocket.

That leads me to two specific questions asked by the hon. Member for Perry Barr at the end of his lengthy set of questions. I have always believed that charitable work should be funded from the pockets of individuals and should not be funded through taxpayers' contributions.

Although the hon. Gentleman did not name the university to which he referred in his second question, those services provided by some campuses and some student unions—for example, the provision of late-night buses for women and similar services—are well within the core services as set out in the consultation paper.

I shall return to the point with which I began. I believe that it is right that universities, whether through campus unions or direct services, should provide the core of essential services—welfare, student representation, sport and catering—but I do not believe that outside that core it is right that, in a late 20th century democracy, uniquely in this country, young people should be forced, without any redress, to join an organisation.

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage)

My right hon. Friend speaks rightly about high principle. Does he believe in the principle of university autonomy, and does he think that his proposals are consistent with that principle?

Mr. Patten

Yes. I know that my hon. Friend speaks with authority as a former Minister with responsibility for higher education. I see no interference whatever with university independence and autonomy. We are setting out proposals so that, in future, there cannot and shall not be flows of public funds towards organisations that are involved in political campaigning, whatever its nature.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

Today's statement is nothing more than a well-gnawed bone thrown to appease the Secretary of State's Back Benchers who are disillusioned by the failure of his other education reforms.

Will the Secretary of State explain to the House how the proposals will improve services to students? How will the proposals raise quality in further and higher education? How does he believe that those proposals will restore his tarnished image? If he is concerned about the alleged misuse of public funds, he would do better to look closer to home at the £35 million that he has wasted on this year's key stage testing.

Mr. Patten

The improvement for students in higher and further education is contained in the consultation charters that are out at the moment, to which we are expecting responses from universities, further education colleges and students themselves. In the first instance, that is where we will see a greater improvement in services available to students. It is critical that the consumer voice has as loud a hearing as the producer voice.

Sir Rhodes Boyson (Brent, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the political activities of the National Union of Students have damaged the image of students throughout the country? His statement today will be welcomed by thousands of students of no party and even by some in the Labour party.

Mr. Patten

The National Union of Students and any other student body of whatever political or non-political sort have a perfect right in a free society to associate together and to campaign, but they cannot and should not be funded by the taxpayer. That is totally wrong in a free society.

I shall repeat to my right hon. Friend what I said earlier. It is totally wrong that anyone, in a free society, should be forced, without redress, to join any organisation whatever.

Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth)

The Secretary of State has criticised the National Union of Students for funding its political activities out of public money. Is it not the case that people who live in glasshouses should not get undressed with the light on? Was it not just last week that the officials' Box was packed with civil servants when we debated political funding? So it is, to put it mildly, two-faced to talk about that.

Secondly, how can the Secretary of State possibly distinguish between what is political and what is of benefit to students? Is it okay to give them Ovaltine for tea, but not for them to campaign against drugs? Where will he draw the line? It is quite impossible.

Furthermore, just as students go down, the Secretary of State provides a consultation which has to be answered before they go up again.

Mr. Patten

I recommend the hon. Gentleman to study carefully the proposals in the two consultation papers which are in the Vote Office this afternoon. I also recommend the hon. Gentleman, whose views on education I respect, to reflect very carefully on the way in which public money is used in education. It cannot be right for public money to be used for campaigning for political activities. There have been enough complaints in recent years about activities in the universities of Lancaster and Bradford and in other universities. It cannot be right that those funds should not be isolated quite clearly from the core of public funds which go, equally quite rightly, to funding services which students have a right to expect.

Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that his statement will be widely welcomed, because it treats students as adults? A period of 12 weeks in which to make a response to a statement which has been signalled for years is quite reasonable. I commend him for what he says within the statement. Students will be reassured by what he has said about care and welfare services. Will he also take on board the fact that we on this side of the House are reassured by what he has said about public accountability and responsibility?

Mr. Patten

This is a very carefully balanced package, as my hon. Friend has pointed out. I believe that public accountability is critical and that it is right that there are proper codes for the election of officers in student unions in campuses in the 800 different higher and further education institutions. I also believe it absolutely right that students or individual organisations who feel disaffected by their treatment, or discriminated against, should have the right to seek redress from someone who comes from outside those institutions—in other words, an ombudsman for individuals or organisations. That is the proposal.

Mr. Greg Pope (Hyndburn)

I know that the Secretary of State is more interested in ideology than in common sense, but perhaps he would address himself to the practical problem of splitting political activities from the core functions. It might be quite difficult to prevent political activities from creeping into even the core functions that he has defined to the House this afternoon.

For example, a disabled students society might wish to campaign for better access in an academic institution. Is that political? Also, individual student unions have lobbied the Government very successfully over the Railways Bill and privatisation about keeping the students and young persons rail card. Clearly, that is a political activity in that it relates to a Bill that is going through the House. Yet the Secretary of State says that student unions will continue to have representational activities. Is that not political? What safeguards can he give to ensure that students unions will be able to do that?

Is it not a fact that, in the end, the right hon. Gentleman is appealing to his own Back Benchers and their neanderthal right-wing instincts rather than providing students with decent services?

Mr. Patten

There is nothing wrong with individual students campaigning, if that is what they wish to do, and providing the funds for campaigning organisations. There is everything wrong, I believe, with political campaigning being funded by taxpayers. The hon. Gentleman will find set out very clearly in one of the two consultation notes in the Vote Office descriptions of the way in which these differences can be drawn.

Mr. Michael Alison (Selby)

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that the fire and slaughter that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) poured on his statement this afternoon would suggest that my right hon. Friend was leading the student world into the world of the gulags? In fact, the reverse is true: he is leading the student world into a dimension of freedom, which is entirely appropriate. In the university culture, voluntarism is the principle of freedom, and my right hon. Friend is to be warmly congratulated on this reform and especially on combining with it the continuation of the fundamental welfare benefits for all students. He has pulled off a remarkable double that can only benefit the student world.

Mr. Patten

I am glad that my right hon. Friend thinks that we have the balance right and that the principles underlying the balancing act that we have announced are strongly founded.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

Does the Secretary of State understand that his statement will be given a particular welcome by Northern Ireland students at the two universities in the Province? Does he further understand that the situation in Northern Ireland is worse than that elsewhere in the United Kingdom, because not only do our own students attend those universities but a large percentage come from the Republic of Ireland—more than 2,000—whose fees are paid by the British taxpayer? Does he realise that those students from the Republic influence the control of the student unions in both universities, which do not reflect the opinions of Northern Ireland students? Does he understand, therefore, that we in Northern Ireland particularly welcome the idea of voluntary opting into student unions and hope that it will apply equally throughout the United Kingdom and not only Great Britain?

Mr. Patten

The right hon. Gentleman will probably have heard me say towards the end of my statement that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will consult separately on arrangements in Northern Ireland. My statement referred to Great Britain. I will certainly draw my right hon. and learned Friend's attention to the right hon. Gentleman's feelings and to the strength of those feelings.

Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on introducing proposals that are based on the fundamental right of the freedom of association. Will he confirm that the objectives behind his proposals are to extend freedom of choice to students, to ensure the continuation of the services that are currently provided, to ensure that students have access to those services arid to stop student unions from doing and saying some extraordinary and extreme things in the name of all students—be it supporting a gay wedding at Lancaster university, supporting extremist organisations or victimising Conservative societies? This is a long overdue but extremely welcome reform.

Mr. Patten

I welcome my hon. Friend's warm welcome and answer, yes, yes, yes and yes to each of his questions.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Is not it particularly sad and pathetic to see an Education Minister reduced to pushing around students because he is having so little success in pushing around teachers? Does not the Secretary of State understand that any attempt to curry favour with the neanderthal tendencies in the Tory party will crumble to dust like the rest of his initiatives? Does he understand that, as he is no longer responsible for university funding in Scotland, many of us find it slightly surprising that no Scottish Minister is present to listen to this latest folly?

Mr. Patten

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is issuing his own strong support for the proposals this afternoon.

Dr. Keith Hampson (Leeds, North-West)

My right hon. Friend spoke of choice. Is he aware that the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals is disturbed that it will have less choice in the nature and quality of student officeholders with which it has to deal because the likelihood is that the sort of students who will have the most incentive to opt in will be those who hold politically extreme views? It is right for my right hon. Friend to seek greater accountability, but will he hesitate before proceeding with some of the reforms, as Sir Keith Joseph did in 1983?

Mr. Patten

I hope that students who are actively interested in student welfare, from whatever part of the political spectrum they come, will involve themselves. I hope that the measures that I have announced this afternoon, should they be approved by Parliament, will to a great extent depoliticise much of the activity of past years on too many campuses.

Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

Is the Minister aware that one of the choices facing an increasing number of students, particularly in London, relates to whether they can afford to finish their courses in view of the particular problems that the capital presents, with high rents and very spread campuses which entail much travelling? Is he also aware that if a union is based solely on volunteers, those very valuable welfare services from which many students, and particularly mature students, have derived great benefit when attempting to balance those harsh economic choices will be diminished?

Mr. Patten

We are conducting a review into student hardship at the moment and I fully appreciate what the hon. Lady says about the difficulties of students in high-cost housing areas, be they London, Oxford or other areas on the south coast. However, the hon. Lady should appreciate that, in 1993–94, the combined value of the grant and loan is 40 per cent. higher than it was in 1989–90. There is no evidence whatsoever that access to higher education is being inhibited.

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)

I warmly welcome the long-overdue end of the neanderthal system whereby students could be forced to join a union and taxpayers' money could be used for totally irresponsible political campaigning. Will my right hon. Friend assure the vast majority of sensible and moderate students that, by these measures, student unions will not in any way be hindered from carrying out their legitimate activities and, instead, will be made more accountable, more democratic and more effective?

Mr. Patten

The word "neanderthal" seems to be flying around the Chamber a lot this afternoon. I can give my hon. Friend exactly the assurance for which he asks. The result of the reforms will be that there will be such codes of practice in the 800 higher and further education institutions in this country so that they will be, to borrow my hon. Friend's words, more accountable and better governed, the auditing procedures will be better and individual students and organisations will have rights of redress to those outside the institutions to rule whether their rights, individually or corporately, have been inhibited.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

Many observers outside the House will recognise the proposals for what they are—the culmination of a very nasty and vindictive attack on the National Union of Students. If affiliation fees are to be paid in future from private sources, will the Secretary of State tell the House where those private sources are to come from when he has managed to reduce so many students to a state of total and abject poverty?

Mr. Patten

It is surely up to individual students to decide whether to make a contribution from their own pockets to political parties and political campaigning or, indeed, to charitable activities. I have always thought that the basis for charitable activity is giving from one's own pocket, not recycling taxpayers' funds.

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will know that I fully support the statement that he has made today because it is based on voluntary membership and not coercion. However, can he go a little further and explain to the House what, if any, public funding will be used by students and by student union organisations? There is great concern among my constituents and among many people in the country that taxpayers' money has been used for political purposes in the past and may be used for such purposes in the future.

Mr. Patten

There will be a rigid accounting division under the proposals set out in the consultation paper. That will prevent any crossflows of funds between moneys which have been provided by the taxpayer for proper services—and I believe that this will be welcomed by students and parents alike—and money which is being spent on political and other campaigning.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

Will the Secretary of State take note of the fact that students, the parents of students and ex-students throughout the country will note that this is the first Government to be so authoritarian that they cannot tolerate students behaving like students?

If the right hon. Gentleman is so concerned about public accountability, why does he not pay more attention to the fact that the decisions of public companies, in respect of their contributions to the Tory party, affect the whole of Britain? The Government's excessive concern over student unions is grossly disproportionate. They should be announcing today that there will be rigid accounting procedures to examine those contributions to the Tory party. Will not people in Britain think that the proposals announced today are laughably disproportionate?

Mr. Patten

Company law is to look after company expenditure and company accounts. We are considering the question of making sure that taxpayers' funds are properly accounted for and are not used for improper political or other campaigning purposes.

Sir George Gardiner (Reigate)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, for many years, countless students have been calling for the adult freedom that he is now offering them and that, equally for many years, countless taxpayers have been unable to fathom why they should indirectly be required to subsidise political campaigning? In proceeding with the legislation, will my right hon. Friend keep open the doors of consultation not just with students' unions but with students' associations which, for many years, have been pressing for this long-overdue reform?

Mr. Patten

Of course I will do exactly that. I give my hon. Friend that reassurance. My hon. Friend referred to students being treated as adults. One of the remarkable things about the 1980s is the way in which the Government made it possible for many more adults to enter further and higher education, and they themselves have their own clear views about some student union activities.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

Does the Secretary of State accept that, for many of us who have been students and members of students' unions in our day, it is as much part and parcel of college and university life to be part of a student union as it is to be part of a library and a students' facility? Instead of encouraging people to opt out, we should be encouraging more people to opt into their responsibilities. Students' unions are organisations in which people can cut their teeth and do much good for local communities as well as for their universities and colleges. In Liverpool university, John Moores university and Liverpool institute of higher education there are many fine examples of student unions providing for the student body and for the people who live in the areas around them.

Mr. Patten

It is a very good thing that students should involve themselves in the community around John Moores university and so on and that they should involve themselves not only with money but with their own time in helping other people in the community. However, the proposals that I have put before the House ensure that the core of services that students, be they those who have just left school or adults, can reasonably expect when they go to university or further education institutions are available. What is disbarred is the expenditure of taxpayers' funds on political campaigning. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would agree with that.

Mr. Gerald Malone (Winchester)

When my right hon. Friend considers the codes of practice that he has referred to, will he try to ensure that student bodies have an obligation to uphold freedom of speech on campuses rather than destroy it, as many of them have done? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is high time that the outrageous scenes that we have seen in the London School of Economics and at Lancaster university, where political meetings were disrupted, were stopped, especially when such occasions are usually moderate? I remember such a meeting that was addressed by our right hon. and noble Friend Lord Tebbit of Chingford.

Mr. Patten

Our right hon. and noble Friend knows how to look after himself on such occasions. Not only my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Tebbit but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security was recently treated with grave discourtesy in a London institution. My hon. Friend puts his finger on the matter. It must be right that speakers can visit universities and colleges of further education and be guaranteed a fair and reasonable hearing. There are provisions in the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 for that to happen. It is very much part of the consultation process that the codes of practice which emerge will ensure that in future such disgraceful scenes are militated against as much as possible.

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)

The Secretary of State might be interested to know that, in my Opposition education role, I have visited almost all Scottish universities in the past year. On no occasion did a vice-chancellor or a university staff member remotely complain about student bodies. Their main concerns are quality in education, increased student numbers and the "pile 'em high, teach 'em cheap" philosophy of the Government. Given that the situation in Scotland is unique in that there is harmony and uniformity of purpose between students and university administrators, will the Secretary of State give an assurance that those unique and special circumstances in Scotland will bear fruit when he discusses them with university vice-chancellors?

Mr. Patten

Of course, discussions will take place, through the consultation mechanism, between vice-chancellors of Scottish universities and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. I entirely agree that we want an improved quality of service for students and that the student voice should be heard more. So also should the employers' voice be heard, and that is why we recently published for consultation draft charters for further and higher education. I am pleased to say that the response thus far has been very positive indeed.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that student unions and the National Union of Students to which they have been affiliated have been brought low by constitutions which have been unsatisfactory and undemocratic? For example, at the former Ealing college of further and higher education a quorum of only 50 was required out of a total of 8,000 or 9,000 students. That enabled a small group of students to take enormous decisions in the name of everybody else and to spend everybody else's money, which of course was taxpayers' money. Is not that where it all went wrong? Will future student bodies be charities, properly accountable to charity commissioners? Will core services be run by students or by universities for students?

Mr. Patten

Core services can be run either in whole or in part by the universities, by further education colleges or by student unions on an agency basis on behalf of the universities or further education colleges to which substantial sums of money flow. It is critical that elections to campus unions take place by secret ballot, and it is critical that there be a minimum number of people voting to ensure that sabbatical officers and others are properly elected. That is why we are proposing that there should be a quorum of at least 33 per cent., and that is set out in the consultation document.

Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)

I too regretted the rant that we heard from the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), because it tended to undermine some hon. Members' genuine and reasonable concerns and reservations about some aspects of the proposals. Will my right hon. Friend take into account the fact that, in recent times, the NUS has gone a long way in cleaning up its act, that it has applied for charitable status which would preclude involvement in political activities, and that most of its work is involved in student welfare issues? Will he assure the House that, during the consultation period, he will listen very closely to concerns which are expressed to him so that the legislation that emerges is for the benefit of all students?

Mr. Patten

Of course I will do that, and of course I welcome any efforts on behalf of the National Union of Students to clean up its act, to borrow my hon. Friend's phrase. It is applying for charitable status. That is a matter not for me but for the charity commissioners. However, it is also the duty of the Government to ensure that in future, should there be a resurgence of the activities that have occurred in the past in the National Union of Students, there is a clear legislative framework to prevent such activities from happening again and being funded by the taxpayer. That is why we are making the basic and fundamental change that I propose.

Forward to